Can Europe Make It?

Berlusconi's endless endgame

Following Berlusconi's recent conviction, the Italian Senate will vote this Wednesday to expel him from its ranks. But with Berlusconi's it's not over before it's over – and the Cavaliere is agitatedly fighting back.

James Walston
26 November 2013
Berlusconi addresses his supporters in August. Demotix/Marco Zeppetella. All rights reserved.

Berlusconi addresses his supporters in August. Demotix/Marco Zeppetella. All rights reserved.

While the Italian government and parliament deliberate over the budget - the final vote in the Senate is due this week - the foreign media (and the Italians for that matter) are more interested in guess-who.

Indeed, Berlusconi is doing his best to concentrate political and media attention on himself and his imminent expulsion from the Senate. On Saturday he gave an impassioned version of his stock speech to the young members of his new Forza Italia party. According to this narrative, he is the victim of a left-wing judicial conspiracy; he railed against the judiciary and the left which has never been able to defeat him politically.

If, as is almost certain, he is expelled, according to Berlusconi, it would be a coup d’état and the end of Italian democracy. It would not only be an affront and humiliation to him if he had to do community service – he seriously fears having to “clean the loos”, as he put it. Berlusconi's “rehabilitation” would humiliate the whole country – he is, after all, the one who managed to bring the US and Russia closer together, plus many other successes, according to him at least. Hyperbole apart, he sounds much like Josefa Idem, the former minister for equal opportunities who was forced to resign in May because of allegations that she had not paid taxes for a gym she owns - “After all the Olympic medals I have won for Italy, I should not have to go”.

Even if Berlusconi’s claims about his world statesman role were true, it is hardly the point. On 1 August, he was convicted of tax evasion and tax fraud after three levels of judgment in trials that lasted a decade; he was represented by some of the best lawyers in the country and for most of the time, two of them were members of parliament working on law-making committees which were taking decisions that could have an impact in their clients' favour. He used his position either as prime minister or as member of parliament to delay hearings in the hope that the case would be dismissed. 

After the guilty verdict, Berlusconi has repeatedly hinted at, asked for and demanded that President Napolitano give him a pardon, the last time on Saturday when he said explicitly that he was not going to ask for it (which would imply the acceptance of guilt) but that Napolitano should give it to him against all the rules and the precedents. Napolitano has responded, first on 13 August, then on Sunday, patiently explaining that he cannot do so legally.

There are many valid criticisms of Italian justice and judges do make mistakes, sometimes terrible ones, but no one can accuse the judiciary of running kangaroo courts. The other element of Berlusconi’s narrative that no one challenges him on is that because “the left” (never the “centre-left”) cannot defeat him politically, they have taken the “red judges” as allies to kill him legally. In fact, Berlusconi was defeated at the polls in 1996 and again in 2006 by Romano Prodi; he was removed from office by his ally Umberto Bossi’s defection in 1994 and again in 2011 by the gradual disintegration of support for his coalition caused by his inability to face the euro crisis. This year his party did very well compared to the opinion polls a month or two before the elections, yet it only polled 7.3m compared to 13.6m in 2008, an undeniable collapse.

On Wednesday 27, the Senate will debate and vote on Berlusconi’s expulsion from its own ranks. It will be an open vote, as the regulation was recently changed. Normally personal matters involving a single senator are secret votes allowing single representatives to avoid the party whip or public opinion but the PD and some of the opposition decided that this vote was not a personal one about Senator Berlusconi, but rather a way to test a new law, the so-called Severino law, after the then minister of justice. This is an anti-corruption measure passed in December last year which prohibits anyone with a conviction of more than two years from holding elected office or standing for office. It has been applied to city and regional councillors and to candidates in the general election in February - but never to parliamentarians until now.

Berlusconi has threatened a big demonstration on Wednesday, triggering a warning from Napolitano himself that the event should remain "within the bounds of institutional respect and normal and dutiful legality." Certainly there will be a big crowd outside the Senate on Wednesday, bringing on fears of the apocalyptic images in the finale of Nanni Moretti’s 2006 film “The Caiman”, where a pro-Berlusconi mob violently attacks the judges who have just convicted him.

A canny move would have been for him to resign before the vote; the Senate would have to deliberate (and vote) to accept the resignation and that would have taken a few weeks. Above all, it would have been a secret vote. But on Saturday he said very explicitly that he was not going to resign. Instead he announced he could bring up new evidence proving that he was not guilty in the Mediaset fraud case, claiming that the Senate should not vote on Wednesday. This evidence, a series of phone recordings, did not seem to impress the other parties, who have said that the vote will go ahead.

But even with less than a day to go before the vote, it is by no means certain that it will actually take place. Berlusconi is desperate not to lose his immunity because he is terrified of preventive detention for another prosecution, this time for having bought a Neapolitan senator seven years ago. With Berlusconi's old friend Putin in town, there is a wonderful rumour flying around that Putin will make him Russian ambassador to the Vatican…

Even when it’s over, it won’t be over... 

This article was originally published on 25 November on the author's blog, Italian Politics with Walston.

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